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Equality is nothing to fear

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  April 27, 2010 08:59 PM

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Everybody knows that fear is the great motivator. Ask any advertising professional, political campaign manager, or the folks who deliver the nightly mayhem report on your local news stations. No doubt about it: fear sells and boosts ratings.

So I should not have been surprised when gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker resorted to scare-mongering tactics to campaign against a bill that would ensure equal protection under the law for people who are transgender.

The bill would add Massachusetts to 13 other states that already protect the rights of transgender people by including gender identity and expression in the state's non-discrimination statutes. Recent polls show that 76 percent of Massachusetts voters support this legislation as a matter of basic fairness. Most people believe that transgender people deserve to live without fear of violence or discrimination.

Apparently, Baker doesn't agree. Dubbing the civil rights legislation the "bathroom bill," Baker vowed to veto the bill if he is elected -- as did State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who is running for governor as an independent.

In contrast, Governor Deval Patrick said, "I feel very strongly that discrimination should not appear in our Constitution or in our laws."

Calling this civil rights bill a bathroom bill is blatant fear-mongering. Personally, I don't spend time checking out other people's private parts in public restrooms. I don't think it's any of my business. Then again, I have a hard time figuring out how it is Charlie Baker or Tim Cahill's business, either.

The scary bathroom trick is the same one that was used in the 1930s to warn against "Bolsheviks breeding in your washroom." Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment trotted out the old saw again in 1970s, warning that equal rights would lead to men and women sharing public bathrooms.

Well, 34 years after passage of the state ERA, I'm not aware of any women trying to beat down the door to public men's rest room (no thanks, gents'; we'd rather wait in long lines for the women's rest room). It's silly to suggest that ensuring equal rights will mean that sex-segregated facilities will be used any differently than they are now.

But we all know that this public debate isn't about bathrooms. It's about ensuring equal protection under the law for everybody: a fundamental principle of American democracy.

It also is about the use of fear in politics.

So, let's talk about transgender equal rights and fear.

Maybe you or someone you know is afraid of people who may have been born with indeterminate sex characteristics or who otherwise feel as if they were born in the wrong body. It's a medical condition that actually is more common than you think. In fact, one estimate is that one out of every 100 people is transgender.

Maybe you think that it is weird or scary. Well, imagine how people who are born the wrong gender feel -- and how scary it must be for them!

And if you are too afraid to walk in their shoes, then at least try to imagine how their families might feel. Imagine if medical doctors told you that your baby had been born with unclear genitalia and you had to decide whether to raise your child as a boy or a girl? Pretty scary, right? Now imagine that you guessed wrong. Should your child somehow be treated as a second class citizen as a result?

I hope you answered no.

Listen to the words of Ken and Marcia Garber, of Quincy, whose 20 year old son died after years of harassment based on his gender identity. Ken, a square-jawed fire fighter with a grey crew-cut, spoke at the State House today about how hard it was for their son to live as a second class citizen.

“When you discriminate against transgender people, you discriminate against everybody who loves them,” said Ken.

Another parent, Marion Freedman-Gurspan, said “In my wildest dreams, I never thought that I’d have to stand here and beg for basic civil rights protections for my child. I thought that went out in 1964!”

Another father, David Hardy, spoke about his concern for the safety of his three kids: the one who is on duty in Kabul, the one who is a rock-climber, and the one who is transgender. “We really worry about him,” said Hardy.

Ultimately, what you or I think about transgender people is irrelevant. What matters is that all people should be afforded equal protection under the law. A personal decision that somebody else makes about their own gender identity is just that: personal. It's not my business; it's not yours; and it certainly should not be the business of the government -- or fear fodder for a political campaign.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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